Last night was my first night without Wilhelm. It was an unaccustomed feeling indeed. Every night the past weeks, I would take up the three-kilogram-book and continue to learn about the last German emperor. Sadly, my assistant co-worker who had borrowed the book for me from the library had now renewed the loan three times and now I had to give it back because you cannot keep it longer than that. I haven’t gotten to the end of Wilhelm’s fascinating life but I followed him into young adulthood at least. And I learned lots of things I didn’t know (and while those evoke sympathy for Wilhelm, I still believe he was a catastrophe as Kaiser.)
- Wilhelm was sure that Jesus had whiskers.
As a child, Wilhelm had a dispute with his younger sister Charlotte about faith. His governess witnessed a discussion between the two about which of them had God in their heart. Wilhelm quickly decided that “if you have God in your heart, I will have Jesus Christ in mine”. The governess tried to explain the idea of trinity to the Kaiser-to-be and God’s power to be in all children’s heart at the same time. Wilhelm refuted the concept of Jesus and God being the same by stating, “Oh non, Mademoiselle, Jésus et Dieu n’est pas la mème chose. Jesus Christ has some whiskers, I saw it in my book, and I am sure der liebe Gott has no whiskers”. (Wilhelm was educated trilingually, obviously, with a German dad, an English mom and a French governess.)
2. He made up interesting nicknames for his relatives (including his super-famous grandma)
The relationship with England is one of the most intriguing parts in Wilhelm’s biography. He was fond of his British grandmother, legendary Queen Victoria. Wilhelm loved his grandma but once she had died, he started an arms race against England resulting in the First World War.
He had an ambivalent bond with his mother, British Princess Royal Victoria, called Vicky. Yeah, everyone had the same name back then which is why it was so important to obtain a nice nickname. Wilhelm’s sister Charlotte became “Ditta” for life because Wilhelm as a toddler tried to call her “dear sister”. While this nickname makes sense, he called everyone else a “pickle” and his grandmother, Empress of India, Queen of the Commonwealth, Legend of Britian, “a duck”.
3. His mother wrote awful letters to him.
As mentioned above, the relationship with is mother was to say the least difficult. Vicky was ashamed of her son who had a disabled arm due to complications during his birth and at the same time she was determined to raise a perfect liberal emperor of Germany. (Spoiler alert: That did not go well. At all.)
Her letters to her son reflect the tough mother-son ties: Vicky writes downright cruel messages like “I fear you three oldest [siblings] will be very stupid at drawing or do you consider that an insult?” interspersed with lectures on how to formulate letters: “I cannot give you any compliment for your handwriting, dear boy, both your hand and your orthography are bad, there is not one word without a mistake or a missing letter” or “Why do you write ‘Aunt Alexis’? That is quite a major mistake, her name is Alexandrine and the abbreviation is Alex”. She even corrected his letters and sent them back and never tired of commenting, often almost hostile, on what he had written. “Also, you begin with letters with ‘Dear Mama’ which is find rather cold – don’t you think you could find a word that sounds more loving? Then I believe you should sign your letters with respect to your parents, you write ‘Your loving son’ which would be appropriate for a sibling”. Give me a break, really. And she expected more than one letter a week and wondered why his letters became more scarce the older he got.
4. He was forced to put his arm into a dead rabbit. Every day.
Wilhelm’s arm was crippled from day one of his life. Believing that the right treatment could cure the little body, doctors subjected baby Wilhelm to futile treatments ranging from having a freshly slaughtered hare wrapped around his arm, to electrotherapy treatment and metal restraints to keep his posture upright. Of course it did not work and possibly the only result was a traumatized tormented boy.
5. Bonn used to be the finest university
If you ask the average German about a renowed German university, they might say: Heidelberg. Göttingen. Marburg. Maybe Freiburg, Munich, Tübingen. They will not think of Bonn of all places. But apparently, the West German provincial village (population 50,000 back then) was a hotspot for young nobility. All the gentry sons were sent there and also the rich bourgeousie studied in Bonn. Wilhelm immediately joined a fraternity, something that was not well-established until the late 19th century in Germany. Only when the Prussian Prince became a frat boy, the student league florurished!
6. (extra one that I didn’t learn from the biography): The Hamburg Dammtor Train Station was built solely for the Kaiser
A popular story in Hamburg is that Wilhelm II., as an adult, decided to visit Hamburg and wanted to arrive by train from Berlin. When he heard that the central station was constructed in a way that you take the staris from the tracks up to the street level, he rejected the idea stating that an Emperor “does not crawl up to his people”. The Hamburgers, obviously desperate for this visit, started to build what is today the Dammtor, a big station almost next to the central one, but with the tracks above ground level and stairs leading down to the people. Even today it is still used to receive important guests and still bears the byname “Emperor Station”.